Mark Steel: Who wants to be a billionaire?

Ten years of Labour rule, and we're kinder to the super-rich than Bush's America
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The Independent Online

It turns out that last year the richest 54 people in Britain had an estimated income of £126bn. Which, in layman's language, is one hundred and twenty-six arseing bloody billion pounds. That's billion, not million. They've probably got a jug on the mantlepiece for those odd millions that turn up behind cushions and under the car seat. But even better, the amount of this paid in tax was 0.14 per cent. That's nought point one four arseing bloody per cent.

So presumably there'll now be a series of adverts in which a billionaire is interviewed in a police cell and stutters: "But I was simply transferring funds to... But the investment required for... If only I'd sold that steel plant back to..." Then a voice oozing with gangland menace will say: "No ifs - no buts - pay your tax or you will face jail."

Many of the 54 are foreign businessmen, attracted by the current attitude towards tax for billionaires, which seems to be: "No - put it away, this is our treat."

So they can be nice to asylum-seekers, as long as the story is: "My billions are fleeing a barbaric regime where, in front of my whole family, the authorities threatened to confiscate a bit of it and turn it into tax... (Breaks down and sobs) Please, I beg you, don't force my billions back to this evil place."

Gordon Brown did promise, before he was in the Government, to change the rule that allows the rich to claim "non-domicile status", which helps them get out of tax. But he hasn't got round to it yet. Still, he's probably abiding by the quaint old Scottish saying: "Look after the pennies and the hundreds of billions of pounds will look after themselves."

Maybe he's planning on creating similar loopholes for other crimes. So burglars could inform the police that while they did the robbery, it was all legitimate because the crowbar's been registered in Guernsey. And drug addicts will be left alone if they can show all the crack has been registered in the name of their wife.

A useful advisor on this practice would be Philip Green, whose group owns Burtons, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins. In 2005 it declared a dividend of £1.299bn. But £1.2bn of this he kindly gave to his wife who, as luck would have it, was resident in Monaco and therefore didn't have to pay the UK rate of tax.

Or maybe this is cynical, and she was living there anyway because it's handy for the shops. And Philip hands her all the money because every Friday he gets home with his pay packet and she yells: "Come on, hand it over. I'm not letting you keep it so you can blow ten million on the fruit machine."

It's estimated this saves the Greens £300m, but that would still leave a billion - can't they get by on that? Or would Mrs Green scream: "What am I supposed to tell the kids now? This week I won't even be able to buy them an island. They'll have to make do with a lake."

The best part is that the Government boasts about Britain's lax system, as this is the reason for the world's super-rich coming here. Maybe Brown's hoping that when he's been Prime Minister for a while he'll have extended this attitude to other areas, and tell us excitedly: "Such is our reputation as a low-tax, low-regulation, vibrant economy that we have attracted no fewer than 20,000 pimps. The busy brothels, bright wide ties and lively jive banter of our inner cities is testament to our success in seizing market opportunities."

So David Harvey, the head of a global association of tax lawyers for the wealthy, said Britain has become the billionaires' natural home, rather than America, because: "The IRS is perceived to be a much more burdensome tax regulator than the UK Revenue."

Ten years of Labour government, and we're kinder to the super-rich than George Bush's America. There's probably a growing group of Americans thinking: "We knew George W Bush was right wing, but we didn't think he'd tie himself so closely to such a warmongering friend of the rich as Tony Blair."

To put this another way, the Government admits that tax avoidance last year was somewhere between £97bn and £150bn, whereas benefit fraud amounted to less than one billion pounds.

So the current obsession with benefit fraud makes as much sense as if, after the Great Train Robbery, the police said: "We have excellent news. The robbers have got away and are a vital part of the economy. But we did catch three passengers who didn't have a valid ticket."

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